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Transcript from IMKC "Ageism in the Time of Coronavirus"

Kimberlé Crenshaw: COVID-19 has changed everything, halting life as we know it in its tracks. To respond to this global pandemic and to adapt to this new way of life, we’re doing things a bit more DIY than usual. We’re not in the studio and we’re dispersed all over the country, but we did want to respond to the urgent need for information, bringing to you the voices some of the leading experts to help us grapple with the new and not-so-new dimensions of this crisis.


Ageism is one of those isms that impacts all of us at some point. But oddly enough, it's the one that most people don't really think about. And when I've thought about it myself, I've thought about moments in my family's life, my mother's life, in which I very much felt that her skills and her authority in her job were being undermined. Because she was perceived as an older teacher as opposed to someone that had 40 years of expertise and had many generations of students that she'd successfully mentored.


And I've seen ageism play out in medical settings. I've seen it play out even in death, when unknown causes of the death of older people don't prompt any desire to actually find out what happened. Because after all, they're older.


I think though, having seen and heard how ageism is playing out in this moment in quips that suggests, for example, that COVID is a baby boomer remover. I suspect some people were probably thinking about some baby boomers, namely one who lives in the white house or one who's running for president. What it definitely reflects is the failure to recognize that those baby boomers and older who are most at risk are those who are people of color, those who have worked their entire lives for other people. And retire without benefits or without housing security to actually be able to shelter in place safely, to ride this out. When we use these frames that denigrate one part of our population thinking that they're represented by those who are most powerful or most dominant, in that we are repeating the same kind of erasure and marginalization that intersectionality was designed to address in the first place.


So here's another place where we take intersectional thinking. If we know this is part of an unrecognized dimension of social disempowerment, ageism, what happens when we think about how it intersects with other forms of disempowerment like racism and patriarchy, and heterosexism. They're playing out in front of our very eyes as the COVID virus wreaks havoc. So we thought it was important for us to pause and really take a deep dive into what the face of the intersection of ageism and race and class actually looks like.


My first guest, Ashton Applewhite, is a writer and activist based in Brooklyn. She is the author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, and has been recognized by the New York Times, the New Yorker, NPR, and the American Society on Aging as a leading expert on ageism, or discrimination on the basis of age.


Kimberlé Crenshaw: So Ashton, we're in the middle of a global pandemic. If we think and look and understand, we might be able to come out of this with a better understanding of ageism, its various functions and how it operates. But just as a start, what's a series of images or things you've heard that are your point of departure for thinking about this?


Ashton Applewhite: Well, I have to say I'm recording this from my house in busy Brooklyn and for once in my life I don't have to worry about trucks rolling by and sirens, which is great but creepy. I also watched just half an hour ago some footage from an emergency room in Italy, which is being used as an intensive care unit. Italy paradoxically is one of the oldest in terms of average population age and least ageist Western countries. The generations mix, which is one reason the infection rates are so high.


Kimberlé Crenshaw: Wow.


Ashton Applewhite: Yeah. But that of course does not explain or justify the high mortality, which is that we are unprepared and we should've taken better measures. I live in New York, which is about to become the global epicenter of this. We are woefully underprepared. And there is no doubt in my mind that pervasive ageism, and I have to say ableism right on its heels, is a huge reason globally for our laxness. This doctrine, wash your hands, stay six feet apart from people, but don't worry too much because only old people and people with chronic illnesses are going to be affected. So people didn't worry.


Kimberlé Crenshaw: And, let's dive in right there because I think this is an important moment and point of departure for us to understand- you'll be fine as long as you do these things because it mostly impacts old people or people with underlying health conditions. So if we were to say what is ageist about that, what would we say?


Ashton Applewhite: We are being ageist anytime we make an assumption about someone or a group of people on the basis of age. And it can be young people too, kids are like that, whatever. So it really affects everyone. But we live in a youth-obsessed consumer-driven society that we sell stuff by showing beautiful young people to everyone and commercializing youth. And at its ugly heart, and it pains me even to say out loud, but is the idea that to age is to lose value as a human being. And at the heart of ableism is the notion that if you are less than physically perfect, I mean frankly the further we deviate from thin, white male, the further down the food chain you are, the harder it is to be seen, to have privilege, to have equity. As you know better than anyone, all prejudice operates to pit us against each other. In the case of ageism, old against young. It's not helpful to break it down that way. We are all in this together, boy.


Kimberlé Crenshaw: Yeah. Well speaking of breaking down, we've been seeing memes that suggest this virus might be best thought of as the boomer remover. So there’s that. And then there's the reality that decisions are now being made about who lives and who dies on the basis of age. How should we be thinking about all of these things right now?


Ashton Applewhite: Progressives are always at a disadvantage because we will honestly admit that it's complicated. The death of an 80-year-old person is sad, especially if it was preventable and sad and wrong. If that person's life could have been saved and the decision was not made simply on the basis of the assumption that who cares about them or they had shitty quality of life. However, the death of an 80-year-old is less tragic on some level, some absolute level. Than the death of an 18-year-old because they have experienced more of what life has to offer. But it doesn't mean that the loss of anyone you love or who is loved by other people isn't a terrible source of grief. And to lose it in this way alone, alone, alone, on the floor in some barracks surrounded by people suffocating to death in a way that could have been prevented is unthinkably terrible.


Kimberlé Crenshaw: The imagery that you just painted for us really reminded me of the image from hurricane Katrina that still makes it impossible for me actually really get through a sentence. There was a picture of somebody's